Can’t Beat Market? Just Stay Faithful

Foreword from ShareInvestor

This article “Can’t Beat Market? Just Stay Faithful” by Goh Eng Yeow was first published in The Straits Times on 28 Sep 2014 and is reproduced in this blog in its entirety.

Invest for the long haul to reap returns that can outpace inflation

Inflation is something of a silent assassin, eroding our savings in a big way if we just sit back and do nothing.

The insidious way that steadily rising prices can eat into the lump sums we have squirrelled away in bank accounts can play havoc with anyone’s retirement plans.

The point was driven home forcefully by Mr Kevin Scully, owner of a boutique financial advisory firm, as he shared some home truths at a recent seminar.

One of the bluntest – that “saving is not investing” – set the theme.

Mr Scully showed the 600 people who packed into the SIM University auditorium slide after slide illustrating that the costs of food and health care have vastly outpaced the six- and 12-month fixed deposit rates over the past 10 years.

“We need to get returns of at least 3 to 5 per cent on our investments just to stand still. Clearly, this will not come from bank deposits.”

He flagged another problem for those of my generation – people in their 40s and 50s – namely, the likelihood that many of us may run out of money during retirement because of inflation.

It was a sobering thought for those of us at the seminar organised by the Singapore Exchange and SIM University.

My generation has enjoyed the Singapore miracle, so to speak, when big-ticket items such as HDB flats cost a fraction of what they are worth now. If we have difficulties financing our retirement, the next generation will have an even rougher ride.

As Mr Scully put it: “You cannot rely on your children for financial support because they probably have more debt and cashflow problems than you. My daughter is getting married, and she needs $700,000 to pay for her flat.”

During the tea break, I spoke to some students and young working adults at the event. Their gripe was not that they were not making an effort to save. The bigger issue was how to earn a decent return on their savings without exposing themselves to too much risk.

At the panel discussion later, I told the audience that I had only my investment experience to fall back on in advising them on what they could do to get inflation-beating returns.

When I started working in 1986, I had the good fortune of buying 1,000 Singapore Bus Service shares, which cost $3,000 and gave me a concessionary monthly bus travel pass.

I kept the shares, which have multiplied through various issues and stock splits into 16,040 ComfortDelGro shares and 1,200 SBS Transit shares worth a total of $41,000. That gave me a total return of 1,260 per cent over a 28-year period.

Similarly, if an investor had put his money in a basket of stocks, tracking the benchmark Straits Times Index (STI), he would come out a winner. The STI has soared by 230 per cent over the past 28 years, from about 1,000 points to 3,300 now.

Even legendary stockpicker Warren Buffett has conceded to the merits of investing in a basket of stocks by instructing the executors of his estate to put the bulk of the money he leaves his wife on a low-cost S&P 500 index fund when he dies.

Sure, in the short term, getting returns this way may be painstakingly slow, like watching the grass grow. But wait long enough, and the grass will have grown tall and you will find yourself reaping a return that beats inflation hands down.

But when I started working, there were formidable barriers to buying equities for a budding investor. There was no tracker fund on the STI, and even buying 1,000 SBS shares set me back more than two months of my pay.

In contrast, investing is much easier for novice investors now, even if they have as little as $100 to invest every month.

From January, the outlay for buying a blue chip will be reduced, as the lot size for trading is cut from 1,000 shares to 100 shares.

There are also two funds tracking the STI – the SPDR STI ETF and the Nikko AM Singapore STI ETF – which an investor can buy into. These are low-cost funds that provide exposure to blue chips such as DBS Group Holdings, OCBC Bank and SingTel at a fraction of what it would cost to buy each counter individually.

Better still, local financial institutions are lending a helping hand to savers who want to invest.

POSB offers a plan which allows its account holders to put aside a sum – starting from $100 a month – to buy into the Nikko AM STI ETF. Similarly, an OCBC Bank scheme allows an investor to invest as little as $100 a month on 19 of the STI component stocks and the Nikko AM STI ETF.

Among brokerages, Phillip Securities has a programme – also for as little as $100 a month – which lets clients buy into the SPDR STI ETF and a number of blue chips.

What I like about the three schemes is that they adopt a “dollar-cost average” approach, which means that you buy more of a stock when the market is down and less when it is up.

Dollar-cost average over a lifetime and chances are that you will almost beat everyone else who does not, if stocks continue on the same upward trajectory as they did in the past three decades.

If you want returns on your savings that outpace inflation, you do not have to beat the market. All you have to do is to stay with it faithfully.